Revising the Revisionists: Can the Truth Lead to Reconciliation in South Africa?

Written by
Carrie Compton, Princeton Alumni Weekly
Sept. 15, 2021

Historian Jacob Dlamini, born and raised in South Africa, seeks to tell nuanced stories about the apartheid era. His job is especially fraught.

Dlamini’s efforts are often dismissed by his countrymen: “‘Why are we even writing books about apartheid? We know what it was,’” is a common refrain, he says. Yet “the level of ignorance is astounding,” says Dlamini, a Princeton assistant professor of history since 2015. “People think, ‘We know enough, so there’s no need to be going back.’ And because of this ignorance about the past, people make these easy jumps and will reach easy conclusions.”

Within the last 10 years, Dlamini (pronounced la-mee-nie) has published four books on the country’s history, an output inspired not just by his own apartheid-era experiences, but by his view that South Africans are increasingly embracing revisionist histories. He believes this trend can be linked, in part, to citizens’ disillusionment with the post-apartheid government, which he says has veered sharply from a democracy into a fulsome kleptocracy over the last 10 years or so.

“We spent the past 25 years frittering away whatever moral authority we had for defeating apartheid,” he says. “And we’ve engaged in a grand corruption.”

Dlamini’s work refines the narrative around apartheid, often by exploring uncomfortable subjects. In Safari Nation, published in 2020, Dlamini dispels racial stereotypes around conservation and environmentalism by showing the long history Blacks have had in the operation of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. “There is this very ugly history of environmentalism and racism in South Africa where whites are the naturalists and the conservationists and Blacks are the poachers, the destroyers,” Dlamini says. “And so I come along to tell a much more complicated story.” Another book concerns former members of the African National Congress (ANC) who became informants for the South African Security Police. And Dlamini is working on a book that seeks to show how the apartheid state’s hunger for conformity endangered even its white soldiers. That book’s subject is a former military psychiatrist who exposed white South African troops to brutal and humiliating forms of treatment to “cure” them of homosexuality and other so-called vices.

Read more at Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Photo credit: Etta Recke